When do teacher evaluations constrain teacher effectiveness?

By:

Aug 15, 2014

Last week, the Fordham Institute’s new president, Mike Petrilli, wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece on how different strands of education reform are often incongruent with each other. In that piece, one of the conflicts he noted is the tension between “teacher effectiveness” reforms that push for stronger teacher evaluations and efforts around “personalized learning” and “autonomous and accountable schools.” This is a particularly important issue for schools using blended learning, and as such, the topic deserves more attention.

For blended-learning teachers, the problem with many teacher evaluations systems is that they assume too narrow a concept of teachers’ roles and of effective teaching practices. For example, consider the classroom observation rubrics that are usually part of teacher evaluation systems. Most of these observation rubrics are based on teaching standards that were designed for traditional classrooms. As such, they often rate teachers on how well they are able to plan and execute lessons that require them to hold the attention of 20 to 30 students and lead them through activities together. These rating rubrics don’t make as much sense in blended-learning environments where each student is working on a personal learning plan and where the whole class is rarely doing the same thing at the same time. Furthermore, typical observation rubrics make even less sense in the A La Carte blended-learning models where teachers and students interact remotely.

As another example, consider some of the challenges that arise when using value-added measures to assess a blended-learning teachers’ performance based on student test scores. The concept of associating teaching inputs with student outcomes is not a bad idea, but it becomes problematic in settings where students’ learning is not the sole responsibility of just one teacher. Many blended-learning environments assign multiple teachers to work together with groups of 40 or more students at a time. In addition, some blended-learning environments have teachers differentiate their roles—with some teachers taking responsibility for developing online-learning curriculum and resources, and others leading small-group instruction, project-based learning, or focused interventions. In these environments, how do you decide which students should be assigned to which teacher for calculating value-added scores?

When we hold teachers accountable for how they perform on these evaluation systems, we put intense pressure on teachers and schools to conform to traditional models of classroom instruction. In doing this, teacher accountability goes beyond focusing on our ultimate educational goals and starts to force the means for achieving those goals. Specifying the means would be fine if good traditional teaching was the one and only proven solution to our educational challenges. But with a factory-model school system that fails by design to meet the learning needs of all students (despite the best efforts of many good teachers), we are in desperate need of innovative instructional models that can leverage technology to personalize instruction. For the schools and teachers that are trying to develop these innovations, prescribing the means puts a terrible constraint on their ability to develop transformative solutions.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.